Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: The new skinny on ground beef

The Agriculture Department has given health-conscious consumers a lot more to cheer about when they head to the meat case. After nearly two decades, USDA has reorganized its ground beef data to incorporate the many types available to consumers today, including the leaner products that were found to be lower in fat and higher in nutrition than most consumers realize.

The data—the agency's first such update in 20 years—shows that a three-ounce cooked serving of 95-percent lean/5-percent fat ground beef has only five grams of total fat, which meets the government guidelines for "lean," and contains an abundance of essential nutrients. What's more, the data finds that 95-percent lean/5-percent fat and some of the other commonly purchased types of ground beef are lower in fat and calories and higher in many micronutrients than ground turkey.

"We're extremely excited by this data because we believe that by providing a lean, great tasting, and nutrient-rich alternative to ground turkey we will be able to increase demand for beef at retail," says Steve Wald, director of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "This USDA data verifies that ground beef, which has been a consumer favorite for years, can and should be part of a healthful diet."

Ground beef's new, healthier image presents a timely opportunity for the meat industry in its continuing efforts to address the two-decade trend of declining fresh beef sales, says Mike Miller, director of meat, seafood, and foodservice for Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Family Markets, which at presstime was preparing to open its 20th supermarket.

"There's a lot of meat out there today," says Miller, pointing to the wide variety of new pork, poultry, and miscellaneous heat-and-eat options that have found their way into the meat case. "Over the years, red meat in particular and ground meat in general has declined primarily because of the proliferation of so many different protein sources in the meat case," he says.

Aside from sales lost to new meat items, Miller says, "The ground beef industry has also had quite a few challenges from a perception issue in the consumer's mind because of safety issues. So I think both situations have led to the overall decline in the ground beef category."

The decline might have been even bigger if not for what Miller says was the dichotomy of the Nineties. "The whole focus was on better nutrition, lower fat, and keeping fat levels in check. But many people never took that information and used it, which flew in the face of new product development going in one direction and people's choices going in the other direction," he says.

"From our perspective, our job is made difficult by what the industry does. The fact that there are food safety problems with ground beef has never been caused by Clemens Markets. Some sort of contamination has been caused in a plant somewhere, and we end up having to mop up and handle the consumer end of it. But in spite of everything that's happened in the ground beef industry, we still sell a lot of ground beef, and there's no doubt we will continue to sell a lot of it, since it's a great dinner choice." Miller notes that Clemens still grinds its own beef daily in all of its stores.

Tracey Erickson, v.p. of marketing communications for Certified Angus Beef in Wooster, Ohio, says, "We have seen a phenomenal increase in product sales across the board, including our ground beef category last year, which has risen over 10 percent, which is largely attributable to our retail program making a greater emphasis on ground beef."

Al Kober, CAB's retail director, is also bullish about ground beef's prospects. "When you start looking at how many times people use it, the numbers clearly demonstrate the important role ground beef plays in the total store," he says.

Pointing to the NPD Group's most recent national eating trends study, which found ground beef accounting for 63 percent of all fresh beef served at home, Kober says versatility remains the product's most popular attribute. "Ground beef has so many uses, and with the many different varieties available, today's shoppers have the option of choosing various compositions of ground beef for different purposes, be it meatloaf, hamburgers, meatballs, or casseroles," he says.

Equal nutrition

CAB's leanest ground beef is a 91-percent composition. Erickson says that's because of marbling, and adds that her organization's strong sales gains in the past year have been attributable "to the great taste of our product. As we look at the fresh meat category over the last 20 years, there's been a marked decline of quality overall."

A point that needs clarification, adds Kober, "is the myth that there's a difference in nutritional value between muscle cuts of different portions of the animal and ground beef. In reality, the lean content in a fillet or a strip steak has the same nutritional value as the lean content in ground beef."

Whether retailers can sink their teeth into USDA's updated data to make consumers more aware of the benefits of lean ground beef and encourage them to buy it more often remains to be seen, says NCBA's Wald.

"The news is ideal to utilize as a PR-type issue for retailers' consumer affairs departments and company Web sites to make more consumers aware of the nutritional benefits of leaner ground products," he says. Wald feels grocers may increase their lean offerings to provide expanded choices based on taste or nutritional preferences.

Wald says that in addition to communicating the nutritional and taste profiles of leaner products, it's important to tell consumers about the corresponding get-what-you-pay-for advantage. "It's a great product for people looking to use beef as an ingredient, which gives a much higher yield than beef with higher percentages of fat."

CAB's Erickson also believes consumers would benefit from learning more about lean ground beef, and she says what's most important is keeping the message simple.

"Consumers are bombarded with often-contradictory nutrition advice on a daily basis," says Erickson. "Yet we continually expect them to be experts and, in fairness, they're trying to sort through the headlines to make sense of it all. Yet whenever anything like this is released that is so positive for our industry, it's important to boil it down by telling customers it's what you want and it's good for you."

The lean message

One company that's been telling retailers and consumers about the benefits of leaner grades of ground beef for several years is Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, which produces 96-percent lean beef for in-store grinding that's certified by the American Heart Association as part of a diet low in total and saturated fat, according to Christine Richardson, Maverick's communications manager.

"Many consumers who are trying to lower total fat and saturated fat choose 85-percent lean/15-percent fat ground beef," says Richardson. "But they are surprised when they find out how much fat a burger made with this type of ground beef adds to their daily fat intake."

The Denver-based company's use of a natural antimicrobial wash on its 96-percent lean, safety-assured ground beef recently won Maverick the Denver Business Journal's Most Innovative Product Award in the edible product category.

"As a natural meat company, there is increasing consumer demand to provide meat that has been safely handled and tested," says Richardson. "While there is not yet a silver bullet for harmful bacteria in our food supply except for proper cooking, we have found a solution to improve food safety."

Maverick is one of the first beef producers to use a new USDA-approved, organic antimicrobial wash called Sanova that's produced by Alcide Corp. The technique reduces pathogens like E. coli O157:H7, listeria, and salmonella on red meat by 99 percent without altering the integrity of the meat, says Richardson.

"The unique processing system greatly reduces the risk of grand-scale recalls," she says.
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